Mozambique: Beyond the beaches

Dazzling, white sand beaches might be one of the main draws in Mozambique, but venture deeper and this overlooked, unspoilt corner of Africa comes into its own — from Maputo, its rough-edged, art-soaked capital, to intimate encounters with wildlife.

By Emma Gregg
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:18 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 15:12 BST
Maputo's Central Market. Image: Superstock

Love is in the air. I'm bouncing across a bay in southeast Mozambique as we've set our hearts on snorkelling with dolphins in the wild — and the conditions are looking perfect.

Briefing us before we pushed out from Ponta Mamoli beach, our skipper, Lourenzo Mpanza, said he could offer no fairy-godmother guarantees. But on this sheltered stretch of the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve in Matutuíne, the odds are on our side. Thanks to effective habitat protection, a code of conduct that's widely respected by operators, and the achievements of a long-running cetacean research project, the reserve is one of the best places in the world for an ethical dolphin encounter.

What's on offer here is the antithesis of the tourist-trap experiences available in certain countries, where unenlightened operators either keep dolphins captive or harass wild pods, chasing and crowding them in their eagerness to get close. In Matutuíne, there's a desire to keep things as low key and low impact as possible. Just four licensed cetacean-watching outfits operate on the 65-mile Indian Ocean coast within the reserve, each using a single boat at a time. Take a short trip with any of them and you've an excellent chance of seeing wild bottlenose, spinner or humpback dolphins at a respectful distance. With luck, you can even join the dolphins in the water, on the animals' own terms.

Ours is the only boat as far as the eye can see. Wishing hard, we squint into the brightness, scanning the gentle waves. We don't have to wait long. "Look, over there!" squeaks one of my companions. And there it is, our first fleeting glimpse: the dark dorsal fin of a bottlenose dolphin, slicing through the blue.

Immediately, more dolphins appear, and Lourenzo watches carefully. "We don't want to disturb them if they're snoozing or there's a mother with a baby," he says, then signals that we can get ready. Soon, we're sliding carefully into the water.

At first, I'm on guard. When you're peering through a mask, refraction makes the underwater world seem strangely enlarged, and the seven dolphins that zoom up to check us out appear very big, very muscular and very close indeed.

On my travels, thanks to the trust that dedicated wildlife researchers engender in their subjects, I've been lucky enough to find myself within inches of some of Africa's most impressive megafauna, from lions and elephants to families of mountain gorillas. But this is different. While most fully grown wild animals — even those habituated to humans — respond to people with detachment, avoidance or aggression, these dolphins exude cheerful curiosity. I'm in their domain and they're circling me, staring me straight in the eye.

How do you greet a dolphin? I've been given some pointers, so make my best attempt at staring back, emitting friendly noises through my snorkel and trying to imitate their movements. But while the pod seems tolerant of my clumsy efforts, they have more pressing matters on their minds. All but one are male, and the female is sexually receptive. Twisting together in a cluster, belly to belly, they dive to the sandy seabed in a sinuous, sensuous courtship.

Such is our affinity with bottlenose dolphins, it's all too tempting to anthropomorphise them, right down to their sexual preferences. As one of the few species that, like humans, mates in ways that can't possibly result in procreation, they attract a catalogue of labels — flirtatious, bi-curious, shameless — and their habits run to sexual piracy; gangs of males sometimes 'kidnap' a young female, bullying her for sex. But no matter what scenario may be unfolding today, there's something exquisitely beautiful about their movements. I could glide among them forever.

When we're back on the boat, Lourenzo puts a delicate gloss on the matter. "Social bonding," he says. "That's something we don't often see. What a privilege!"

Building bridges

You'd think the chance to befriend wild dolphins and scuba dive over starfish-spangled coral reefs would be enough to lure droves of tourists to Mozambique's dazzling south east. But while South Africans have been visiting Matutuíne for ages, European beach-lovers have been slow to explore beyond the barefoot-luxury lodges on the Bazaruto and Quirimbas islands further north. On many of Matutuíne's beaches, human footprints — barefoot or otherwise — are rare.

It's the prospect of combining a city, bush and beach trip into one that clinches the region's appeal. It's as close to Mozambique's intriguing capital, Maputo, as Sussex is to London, and Kruger National Park in South Africa is only 100 miles away. Access used to be challenging, requiring either a boat, light aircraft, helicopter or a ferry crossing, and a nerve-jangling drive along soft, sandy tracks by chapa (shared vehicle) or private 4×4. But now, the journey's a breeze — a pristine ribbon of tarmac runs straight through the region, connecting Maputo's brand new suspension bridge (the longest in Africa) to KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa. Just before the border, it branches east to Ponta do Ouro, a small but expanding beach town where dive centres, dune-shack guesthouses and R&R (rum and raspberry) bars cluster along sandy lanes.

Inevitably, the new road will bring changes to Matutuíne, some good, some bad. Conservationists fear that unless they can make a cast-iron case for the financial benefits of coastal eco-tourism, a long-discussed industrial port could be built at Techobanine, inside the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve ('partial', because certain licensed activities are permitted). From an environmental perspective, this could be disastrous, causing irreversible damage. But for now, much of the reserve remains an unspoilt wilderness, where ghost crabs skitter along the shoreline and sea turtles nest in the white-gold sand.

Before hitting the coast, I spend a long weekend in Maputo, checking out the phantasmagoric paintings and scrap-ammunition sculptures that (along with piri-piri prawns) have become its trademarks, and dancing to marrabenta, Mozambique's irresistible guitar music, in sea-breezy city bars.

Named after its bay and shaped by waves of reinvention, Maputo is a rough-edged but likeable African capital with a laid-back Mediterranean flavour. Its colonial founders, who called it Lourenço Marques after a 16th-century explorer and ivory dealer, grew wealthy on trade; before independence was declared in 1975, around a third of the city's population were Portuguese.

"Even now, we're Laurentinos; we're still taught Portuguese in school," says Herminio Milando of walking tour company Maputo a Pé, who's helping me get my bearings. As we set out from the Polana Serena Hotel to explore, fragments of black-and-white calçada mosaic pavements and pastelarias selling pastéis de nata (custard tarts) remind me of Maputo's faraway cousins, Lisbon, Luanda and Rio.

But Portugal isn't the only influence. I discover traces of Victorian England in the Tunduru Botanical Gardens, where wedding parties pose for photos and fruit bats hang like handbags in the Indian almond trees. While much of the city centre is dilapidated, the historic Baixa district contains some well-preserved architectural masterpieces. Herminio glows with pride as we approach the beaux arts-style railway station, steeped in the romance of early-20th-century train travel, and again as we climb the steps to Cathedral of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, easily the most striking art deco cathedral this side of Casablanca.

Nearby, a 30ft statue of Mozambique's first president, Samora Machel, adds the stamp of Soviet-inspired socialism to Praça da Independência, a public square and focal point of the city, while in the airy Mercado Municipal, the market aromas are spicy and timelessly African. Herminio stops at a fruit stall laden with plump mangoes and papayas, gives a vendor wearing a traditional, brightly printed capulana sarong a few meticais for a massala the size of an orange, and cracks it open. "Try some," he says, indicating the seed's pulp. It's a taste of pure nostalgia, tart as sherbet lemons and sweet as a banana chew.

I spend a day with local academic Walter Tembe and British expat Jane Flood dipping into the world of Maputo's creative greats — the arms-to-art pacifist Gonçalo Mabunda, politically driven painter Malangatana, and breathtakingly prolific architect Pancho Guedes. Jumping in and out of chopelas (tuk-tuk taxis), we explore the well-to-do Polana and Sommerschield districts, chatting to gallery owners and gazing at remarkable buildings, sculptures and murals from the street.

In the mid-20th century, the top layer of Lourenço Marques' society was as glamour hungry as Monaco's or London's, and futuristic architecture was all the rage. Today, thanks to the cold-storage effect of a slow, late route to independence and a 15-year civil war that ended in 1992, the city is peppered with idiosyncratic classics: concrete villas, a church shaped like a lemon squeezer and tower blocks embellished with bold modern art.

When I ask Walter where his love of architecture came from, he beams. "There was an abandoned Pancho Guedes building next to the place where I grew up," he says. "I used to play there as a child. It fascinated me. It was a perfect combination of mathematics and art."

From 1950-1974, Guedes made Lourenço Marques his laboratory, inventing an elegant response to the city's climate: tropical modernism. His buildings were angled to catch the breeze and featured shutters and brise-soleil shades. Their designs also referenced African culture and made use of local materials in their construction. All of this marked Guedes out as way ahead of his time.

There's much to admire, but no sign of any tourists. "We don't really get many," says Walter. "The people who visit tend to be working, or seeing family or friends."
With the West's fascination with mid-century design growing apace, perhaps Maputo's time has come.

Immediately before independence, Maputo's European community vanished, but expats are steadily trickling back. "A friend once put it like this: if Africa is a mighty river, Maputo is the tangle of mangroves at its mouth," says Jane. "People drift downstream from all over the continent, get caught in the roots, discover they rather like it, and that's it — they never really leave."

A wilderness reborn

Having Matutuíne's alluring coastline on the doorstep must help. I take a boat across Maputo Bay to the Laurentinos' favourite retreat, the Machangulo Peninsula, an idyllic finger of forested dunes between the bay and the open sea. As I settle into the capulana-covered cushions at my hideaway, Machangulo Beach Lodge, white-fronted plovers are exploring the sun-marbled shore and greenbuls as cheerful as chaffinches are singing brightly in the trees. After a few days of scuba diving with inquisitive turtles, drinking from coconuts in palm-shaded villages and drifting off to sleep to the sound of the waves, it's hard to tear myself away.

Further south, the rampart of dunes borders a hinterland of licuati sand forest, grasslands, wetlands and lakes, wedged between the ocean and the Maputo River. A treasure trove of endemic plants and birds, much of this habitat is part of the Maputo Special Reserve, a wilderness that's slowly coming back to life. Although many of its mammals were lost to poachers during Mozambique's anti-colonial struggle and post-independence civil war, its elephants fared better, due in part to a wariness of humans coupled with aggressive territorial displays.

Tragically, the long years of conflict blocked the ancient wildlife migration routes between Matutuíne and Maputaland, separating the reserve's elephants from their relatives in South Africa's Tembe Elephant Park, but a cross-border initiative led by the Peace Parks Foundation hopes to reunite the herds. The Reserve and Tembe belong to the 3,860sq mile Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation and Resource Area, which, once its internal fences are removed, will be the only transfrontier park on the continent to allow free movement of both land and marine mammals. It's excellent news for Africa's Big Seven (elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, buffaloes, dolphins and whales).

If well-managed eco-tourism takes off in Maputo Special Reserve, its future should be secure. Matutuíne's most ambitious beach resort, White Pearl, in Ponta Mamoli, is already on board. While I'm there, Lourenzo Mpanza and his colleague, Lauren Arnold, a young British naturalist, take me on a recce in their safari vehicle and I'm so enchanted by the reserve's landscapes that we spend the whole day in the bush, scoping out ideas for future adventures.

Like its city namesake, the reserve oozes vintage cool. Its vistas are huge, its tracks are sandy, and its elephants — which perhaps still remember the poachers — have attitude. When a matriarch blocks our route, Lourenzo's forehead beads with sweat. "OK, I get the message. We'll go another way," he says. We don't really have time for a diversion — but they do say elephants never forget.

For South African freediver Hanli Prinsloo, every encounter with Matutuíne's wildlife is a delight. "I've seen more marine megafauna here than in any other place — manta rays, whale sharks, guitar sharks, the list goes on," she says. "The dolphins are now like family. When I'm away, I miss their faces like I miss my nieces and nephew."

Hanli runs yoga and freediving holidays near Ponta do Ouro and her conservation foundation, I Am Water, helps local children take their first steps towards marine custodianship by teaching them to swim. "It's heart-breaking that kids living within walking distance of the beach don't get to see what lies beneath the waves," she says. "We're so quick to judge local communities for failing to take care of litter or catching the wrong species of fish, but if they feel no connection to the ocean, it's not surprising. You protect what you love."

Hanli is one of a band of enthusiasts doing their utmost for conservation in Matutuíne. Citizen scientist Angie Gullan, of Ponta do Ouro's Dolphin Encountours Research Center, is another. A licensed ocean safari operator, she gathers data that's shaping top-level policy. She's already discovered that in peak season, December-January — when there are more boats and fishing lines in the water and noise pollution rockets — the dolphins' stress levels rocket too. "Within the reserve, eco-tourism — with strict limits on numbers — is part of the solution," she says. She teaches tourists and locals how to act responsibly in a dolphin habitat, and is campaigning for the coast to be declared one of the world's first Whale Heritage Sites.

On the penultimate day of my stay, Angie invites me to join her on a boat trip. We'll set out at dawn the next day and be back in time for me to hurtle up to Maputo for my flight. One last chance to swim with dolphins before I leave? Without a moment's hesitation, I say yes.

At 4am, my alarm jolts me awake. Packing the last of my things, gulping a coffee and shoving my bags into the back of the Land Rover, I set out into the velvety blackness. The dune forest track is dark as a tunnel and in Ponta do Ouro, nothing moves, save the sleepy blinking of coloured lights at deserted R&R bars.

By first light, we're all assembled — Angie, her assistants and six visitors from Germany and South Africa. Angie's briefing is detailed and impassioned. "I like to think of dolphins as nonhuman persons," she says. "They're the people of the sea — self-aware, creative and cultural — and the most important thing I've learned from them is respect."

Angie's confidence and calm is infectious. As soon as we find some dolphins (or, perhaps more accurately, they find us), they make me feel totally at ease. And later, when, with salty hair and sandy toes, I start my journey home, there's a tsunami of happiness in my soul.


Getting there & around

There are no direct flights from the UK to Mozambique. The best-value daily option is from Heathrow to Maputo via Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines (average flight time 15h 25m). Alternatives include TAP Air Portugal via Lisbon (15h 45m) and South African Airways via Johannesburg (14h 45m).

Hotels and lodges in southern Mozambique offer transfers by road, boat, helicopter or light aircraft on request. Alternatively, arrange transfers or 4×4 hire via a ground handler such as Infinite Africa.

In Maputo, Maputo a Pé offers guided walks on a variety of themes. Taxis, tuk-tuks and shared minibuses are plentiful.

When to go

April to October, when the weather is dry and calm and daytime temperatures hover around 20-25C. South African school holidays are the busiest times, especially the festive period and Easter.

Places mentioned

More info
Mozambique, by Philip Briggs.
RRP: £16.99. (Bradt Travel Guides)

How to do it
Tribes Travel has seven nights in southern Mozambique with two at the Polana Serena Hotel (B&B) and five at Machangulo Beach Lodge (all-inclusive) from £2,025 per person, based on two people sharing. Includes transfers and Ethiopian Airlines flights.

Africa Collection has 12 days in South Africa and Mozambique, including a three-night Big Five safari at Mala Mala Game Reserve (all-inclusive) a night at Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa (B&B) and seven at White Pearl (all-inclusive) from £5,648, including Ethiopian Airlines flights.

Read more in the July/August issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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